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Flash Review 1, 2-4: The Incredible Shrinking Media
What if You Held a U.S. Debut and Nobody Came?

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

There were 2000 reporters in New Hampshire this week to cover what was only one round of a long presidential campaign. There were none at the John Jay College Theater in Manhattan Thursday, to witness the one-night only debut of a major modern dance company from Hungary. WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?

I don't know for a fact that 0 journalists were in the house when Gerzson Peter Kovacs's Tranzdanz made its U.S. debut with Kovacs's 1999 "Co-Ax," danced with severe concentration by Kovacs and Veronika Vamos. But I do know that I did not see any of my colleagues from the New York Times or Village Voice in attendance. The American ambassador to Budapest, Peter Tufo, came all the way from Hungary to be there. The Hungarian Consul General, Laszlo Molnar, was there too. So was Jonathan Hollander, whose Battery Dance, working with the consulate, had arranged for Tranzdanz to open Battery's 24th anniversary gala program. And yet, as far as I could see, the Times could not be bothered to send someone the 20 blocks from its West 43rd Street offices to record this one-time only event.

And I have to ask: Why?

Was it because....

1. There was a lot of other dance opening in New York last night? Hmmm...let's see. At Symphony Space, we had Triple Play Dance, featuring premieres by Doug Elkins and Terry Creach, and a performance by the trio of Gus Solomons jr., Carmen de Lavalllade, and Dudley Williams. I think there may have been something at St. Mark's Church too. A couple of performer debuts up the street at City Ballet, but no new work.

2. It was snowing? Sound of smallest violin in the world playing, accompanied by crocodile tears.

3. No one would be interested in the concert anyway, except for maybe other dancers? Looking around the theater, I saw a sea of suits, some Ladies Who Lunch, and others whose posture made it clear to me they were not dancers. (Not a criticism; my posture says the same!) Usually when I go to a dance concert, I see at least a couple of dancers I know, and a lot who, even if I don't know them, I know are dancers. Not the case here. When I remarked on the unusualness of this to Hollander and asked him who this audience was, he explained that this being a gala, the audience included a lot of corporate sponsors and board members. Looking at the donor list, I see Citibank, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, Con Edison, Bell Atlantic, Deloitte & Touche, and others.

My point: Some of this was very weird modern dance, folks, but the audience was not just the inbred usual-suspect fanatical kinetic dancer crowd. These people read The Economist in the morning, not to mention the Times--too bad they can't read about a dance concert that even in their non-insiderness they considered worthwhile.

4. The company was too obscure? For much of its existence, Hollander and Battery Dance have been a force in bringing companies from India and elsewhere here, and an emissary to these countries for U.S. dance. Battery has also provided subsidized studio space--a couple of years ago, I heard the price was $5, bargain basement for New York and a godsend to beginning companies.

5. The dance wasn't any good? Kovacs kind of sneaks up on you. At first, as the curtain comes up on he and Vamos far upstage right, backlit by yellow-turning-orange light, and they start swinging their arms, you think: Oh no, another one of those Eastern European things where they can't get over the marvel of their upper limbs. The two are stationary, facing the audience, elbows crooked, swinging their arms back and forth. They are two-dimensional. Occasionally, one of Kovacs's shoulders jerks up, marionette-like, to make a downwards slope towards the other one. The two dancers never intersect each others' planes. When I had seen this dance on film at a preview the other night, I worried, "Oh no, 45 minutes of monotony," and last night, at first, the live version lived down to this under-expectation. I couldn't resist looking around to seeing how the suits and Ladies Who Lunch received it. One middle-aged guy in glasses was rocking to the beat. The dapper younger guy across the aisle from me was trying to keep his bored chin up with his palm. A couple in the row behind me were unabashedly snickering and kept looking at each other in astonishment; this annoyed me, and I decided it was a reflection of their limitations, not the dance's. (Later on, after the premiere of Hollander's "Jenny Lind Dances," putatively about "perhaps the most famous opera singer of the 19th century," say the program notes, a gentleman behind me who might have seen the real thing exclaimed, "It makes no sense. What does Jenny Lind have to do with what we have seen? Jenny Lind was an opera singer, not a ballet dancer." I share this not necessarily to damn the dance for unspecicivity, but to praise the watcher for attentiveness.)

ANYWAY, as the music for "Co-Ax" subtly shifted from sort of slowed-down techno riffs to adagio strings and back to more jaunty techno, I realized that, indeed, the dance was shifting too. New gestures were being added; more important, the couple was gradually making its way across and downstage. Now they were intersecting each other's planes, tho still not looking at each other--and, significantly, not touching, even as they seemed to weave around each other. The legs, too, started to get involved, where previously they had mostly served to support the mobile, tilting torsoes. More dimensions started being used, as a dancer would throw in a subtle shift. Vamos even went to the floor. A choreographic weakness I noticed was that the designs for Kovacs seemed more intricate and more deeply danced; his mustachioed face was riveting in its fixed distance.

As I watched this dance of intimate distance, somewhere in the back of my head it dawned on me what Kovacs's luscious objective was. "Of course!" I exclaimed in satisfaction as, finally, the backlighting changing to an intimate spotlight on Kovacs and Vamos, they placed their hands around each others waists and begun to circle. I knew this was the conclusion and, indeed, as they spun, the lights faded. When they came up for the applause, the partners tripped in an off-balance embrace.

For a deceptively simple dance, "Co-Ax" had a lot of effort in it. Not just in its performance--tho, in person, I should say the monotony I'd sensed on film was banished; seeing it with live performers, you felt their body heat. No, what was behind this was the tax dollars of the Hungarian people, which funded this visit through the consulate and the ministry of culture. This stands in embarrassing contrast to our government's virtual elimination of funding for international touring, with the expectation that private concerns like David Eden's Trust for Mutual Understanding will step into the breach. As Ambassador Tufo commented, diplomatically, before the show: "Cultural exchange is part of the State Department's policy that's been largely ignored in the last ten years," thanks to a stingy Congress. "We are trying to change that by creativity rather than money." Tufo, who must have played a key role in convincing Hungary to acquiesce in the NATO bombing of Serbia last year to stop the slaughter in Kosovo, noted that "Cultural differences can lead to bloodshed and war. One of our objectives is to bring American culture to Hungary, so as to make less likely that the things in Kosovo are repeated in the region."

(Interestingly, Kovacs says that since the fall of Communism in Hungary in 1990, if anything, funding for the arts and, specifically, modern dance has gone UP every year! He had a recent scare when the municipality of Budapest threatened to sell the theater in which Tranzdanz performs. This, however, seems to have been solved by a partnership with a provincial jazz group which will buy the theater with Tranzdanz.)

What was also behind this tour was the effort--and, I have to say, the HUMILITY--of Hollander, whose company performed last year in Budapest. His work, to which the second half of the concert was given over, did not in my mind stand up to Kovacs's. Hollander's use of space was nowhere near as sophisticated. The dancing, more mobile on the surface, was superficially performed; particularly in "Zero...Two...Blue...Heaven...Seven," set to a wannabe Ivesian commissioned score by Frank Carlberg. The intonations or rather atonalations were abrasively (not convincingly--there's a difference!) weird for weirdo's sake, and any weirdness in the ballet was merely indicated by the dancers, not believed.

But WAIT A MINUTE--there's a problem here, and it's not in the choreography, but its dissection by me, and only me. It's not fair to the choreographer that I be the only one to hold forth on the quality of his work. One "critic" should not have so much power. The failure here is not by the artist, but the media. You should have more than one opinion to weigh. This is not a personal indictment of my colleagues, but rather, an institutional one of a mainstream media which values dance so little--indeed, which just doesn't get it--even when not "just" dancers, but corporations and governments tell a different story.

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